Sega released Shenmue for their ill-fated Dreamcast console on December 29, 1999 to widespread acclaim. Pioneering the open-world genre while pushing some of the most realistic graphics of its time, Shenmue was on the cutting edge of gaming technology in 1999. Yu Suzuki, the developer who led Sega’s legendary AM2 division for 18 years, wanted to create the most immersive game imaginable. To achieve this, he set out to craft a single story spanning across multiple games, with a few chapters of that story told in each new entry. Suzuki and his team planned out systems that would make the gameplay as realistic as possible. These concepts would develop into what we know as Shenmue.
Why Shenmue mattered
Shenmue takes place in a map based on an actual small town in Japan. Designed to model real people, NPCs move around on a 24-hour cycle, living their own simulated lives. Shenmue blended a variety of genres, mixing traditional fighting game sequences with quick time events, and peppering the game world with minigames. Sega’s Yakuza franchise would later replicate this formula to greater avail. Unfortunately, Shenmue hasn’t aged well. It only tells the first chapter of the larger story, and there’s very little action. Much of the first game consists of fetch quests and slow-moving dialogue sequences with only a handful of battles.
In part due to the Dreamcast’s commercial failure, Shenmue and Shenmue 2 flopped, despite the hard work of Suzuki and Sega AM2. At the time, Shenmue was the most expensive game ever developed, making its failure even more devastating for Sega. Poor sales left Shenmue 3 in development hell for over a decade. On top of Shenmue’s failure, Suzuki’s career also fell into turmoil. He eventually left Sega in 2011, after stepping back from his role with the company in 2008.
The Shenmue 3 Debacle
For over 15 years, fans of the Shenmue franchise received nothing but a short-lived Japan-only mobile game. In 2007, reports emerged that Shenmue Online, an MMO announced in 2004 as the next entry in the franchise, had been cancelled. Shenmue 3 was said to be “totally out of the picture.”
Suzuki started his own studio called Ys Net, but he rarely released new games. And there was still no word on a new Shenmue. But on June 16, 2015, as if pigs had suddenly learned to fly, Sony announced a Kickstarter campaign for Shenmue 3 at their E3 press conference. The campaign was an instant success, eventually earning over $6 million dollars in pledges. The few gameplay screens that emerged in the following years garnered mostly positive feedback, and fans were excited.
Things were finally looking up for Suzuki and his dream project. But something unexpected happened during E3 2019, where Ys Net had planned to showcase a new demo of Shenmue 3. During the PC Gaming Show at E3, Shenmue 3 was announced as an Epic Games Store exclusive on PC, much to the dismay of some devoted backers. PC backers soon learned the copies they had already pledged for would be issued through Epic, rather than the Steam codes they had been promised. Suzuki later clarified that Shenmue 3 would eventually come to Steam one year after release. Some disappointed fans protested for refunds.
Thankfully, Ys Net announced yesterday that PC backers upset by the Epic bait-and-switch would be eligible for full refunds. In an unprecedented move, Epic Games will be footing the refund bill instead of the developer. But Epic’s generosity hasn’t entirely removed the bitterness some fans are still expressing online.
The bigger picture
Many point to the fact that Steam users will still have to wait a year for Shenmue 3‘s exclusivity window with Epic to expire. It’s even led some to claim that Ys Net misled backers. It touches a hot button issue in today’s PC game industry: the Epic Games Store and their now-infamous exclusivity deals. Many PC players dread seeing any game reveal even briefly feature the Epic logo, but why?
There are a few reasons. First and foremost, the Epic Games Store is relatively new and lacks some of Steam’s key features. Epic’s store doesn’t even have a shopping cart yet. Many players don’t want to start using a new storefront that lacks crucial features just to buy a few games when they’ve already built a large library on Steam. Many consumers also fear Epic’s long term goal: exclusivity.
Shenmue 3 is a perfect example of a small studio receiving financial support from Epic in exchange for timed exclusivity. While Epic’s new launcher does lack some basic features, the company has still been very wise with their recent acquisitions. Some critics have claimed the store’s recent success takes advantage of Steam’s shortcomings: Epic curates their storefront based on perceived quality while investing large sums into acquiring more timed exclusives.
Shenmue 3 was a perfect candidate for Epic’s strategy. Ys Net appreciated any financial support they could get, and the game itself was already hotly anticipated. Borderlands 3 was in a similar position earlier this year. Borderlands developer Gearbox’s CEO Randy Pitchford declared that users could “bitch and moan” all they want, but in his view, Epic’s launcher stood the best chance of “unmonopolizing” PC gaming.
What does it mean?
The Epic Games Store can certainly compete with Steam financially. After all, Epic created the smash hit Fortnite. However, given consumer backlash against the timed exclusivity deals for games like Shenmue 3, many PC players remain deeply skeptical of the new launcher. Regardless, it’s undeniable that Epic’s platform will have a profound impact on the PC gaming landscape. But the question remains: will this new storefront benefit PC games as a whole and “unmonopolize” the market, or will Epic’s lack of features and controversial exclusivity deals alienate customers?
Leave your thoughts in the comments below. We’d love to hear your opinions on launcher exclusivity and the future of PC gaming.